“And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this first Sunday in Lent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, when you hear the word ‘wilderness,’ what picture comes into your mind? The first thing we may think of is the desert. The wilderness sounds like a place where the sun is beating down on you, where food and water are scarce. And that is probably the kind of wilderness that Jesus encountered in our text. But the word “wilderness” in the Bible doesn’t necessarily refer to a place, instead it indicates a situation. The wilderness is characterized by isolation, desolation, emptiness.
The wilderness is a place where you are alone. Therefore, the wilderness can be the driest desert or the lushest rainforest. If you are isolated and alone, you are in the wilderness. Satan uses this isolation to make the wilderness a place of temptation. Eve was in the wilderness when Satan led her into sin. Even though Adam was right next to her, he refused to speak, and so she was alone. The children of Israel found the wilderness a place of temptation; even though they traveled as a nation led by God, they thought that they were alone, and they rebelled against the God who delivered them from bondage. Satan is at his best when he tempts us one at a time. His mission is to divide and conquer. He wants to bring us into the wilderness, to isolate us from others, and then lead us into sin.
He launches that assault on you and me each and every day. This world is the wilderness, the wilderness of temptation and sin. Satan is always working to keep it that way, to divide and isolate. He wants to separate us from our friends, our family, our congregation, but especially from our God. He does his most diligent and successful work in severing relationships. He wants us to think that we are alone, that we have to face this world by ourselves. And then, when we are isolated in any way, He moves in with temptation.
Temptation. That’s Satan’s specialty, and it is something that sharply distinguishes him from God. St. James teaches us: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one.” God tests, Satan tempts. We saw that in our Old Testament lesson, where God tested Abraham’s faith by having him sacrifice Isaac. God tests, and always for our good. What Satan does is quite different; he tempts, he draws us into sin. He plays on our desires, our emotions, our feelings. All sin starts in the heart, with desire, with coveting, and then it is downhill from there. Once again, James teaches us all about it: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Satan works on our most basic emotions, the desires we have for that which is not ours, for that which is not pleasing to God or in accordance with His holy Law. He knows the power that our emotions hold over us, and he is an expert at using that power against us, especially when we are isolated, when we are walking in the wilderness. Those desires lead to thoughts, words, and actions, those desires lead to sin. And sin has only one consequence, as Scripture clearly teaches: “The wages of sin is death.”
This approach has worked for every human since Eve took the apple from the tree; Satan has had thousands of years to perfect his tactics, and he has managed to lead every person who has ever walked this earth into sin. But then Jesus came. He showed up in Satan’s backyard, the wilderness of this sinful, corrupted world. “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.” He was baptized, but that doesn’t stop Satan’s attacks, it intensifies them. He doesn’t worry too much about the un-baptized, just as long as he can keep them from font. The ones he’s concerned about are those who have heard the words of the Father: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, all Christians, including you and me, are cast out from the font into the wilderness of temptation. But Jesus goes even a step further; He goes into a literal wilderness, the wilderness of Judea, a region inhabited only by the wild beasts, a place where there is no food, and water is scarce. Satan had to be licking his chops. Jesus was already isolated physically, now He must be isolated spiritually and then enticed into sin. One mistake, one sin, and the game was up. Jesus would be ruined and man would still be in Satan’s grasp. And so the devil quickly launched his attacks. Mark tells us that Jesus was “in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Matthew and Luke give us three specific temptations by Satan, but Mark shows us that Jesus constantly faced the relentless assaults of the tempter.
Jesus endured what God’s people have endured for thousands of years; He endured what you have endured for your entire life: continual, unrelenting attack by Satan. Those who have struggled with addiction in any form know exactly what Jesus faced in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God’s chosen people, those delivered by His mighty, outstretched hand, were continually assaulted by Satan’s temptations, and they fell, again and again. In the wilderness, you and I, God’s baptized people, those claimed as His own in those blessed waters, are continually assaulted by Satan’s temptations, and we fall, again and again. But Jesus Christ did not fall. He wasn’t enticed, He wasn’t deceived. Satan used every tactic he had learned in thousands of years of leading humans into sin, every temptation that had worked on millions of people before, but Jesus withstood them all. He remained without sin. He triumphed where God’s people failed, He triumphed where you fail. More than that, He triumphed for you, He triumphed in your place.
For the encounter in the wilderness was simply the first engagement in a war that would last for three years. Satan was defeated in the desert, but he didn’t quit. At every turn, demons rose up against Jesus; Satan even used Peter as a tool to turn Jesus away from the path of salvation. Finally, the journey ended where it began: in the wilderness, this time the wilderness of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus truly was in the wilderness, He was completely isolated, abandoned by all of His disciples, rejected by the world, forsaken even by God Himself. He was more isolated that afternoon that during his forty days in the Judean wilderness. The only one there was Satan, mocking Him through the voice of the crowds, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross.” But Jesus Christ did not fall. He wasn’t enticed, He wasn’t deceived. Despite the temptations of Satan, He gave up His life on the tree, He shed His blood to destroy sin, death, and the power of the devil. He triumphed for you, He triumphed in your place. He triumphed on the cross for every time that you have fallen into Satan’s temptations, He triumphed on the cross so that Satan’s power over you would be broken forever. He triumphed on the cross so that you will never be alone, never isolated from God ever again. He triumphed so that the wilderness of temptation could become the new Eden of peace.
Sin isolates, it divides, it severs relationships. All of God’s creatures have been estranged from each other and from their Creator since Adam and Eve fell into sin. The wilderness is all about isolation. But Jesus came into the wilderness and transformed it. His blood brings forth a new reality: Eden restored, where all of creation lives in harmony with each other and with God. Jesus demonstrated this as He endured the temptations of Satan in the wilderness. Mark tells us, “He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Satan wanted Jesus to be isolated, but instead Jesus restored relationships even with the wild animals, the Creator was honored by His creatures. Isaiah predicted that this would be the work of the Messiah in chapter forty-three of his prophecy: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.” Peace in all the created order is the result of Christ’s work; the restoration of all relationships comes through His blood. What He began in the wilderness of Judea as He faced Satan’s temptations will be completed on the Last Day: the wilderness of temptation will be transformed into the Eden of peace.
Isaiah has more to say in another place about this new Eden, the new heavens and the new earth: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The new heavens and the new earth will be Eden restored, where the wilderness of isolation and division will be no more. Peace will characterize eternity; all relationships will be perfect and whole, especially your relationship with your God, healed by the shed blood of Christ. There the assaults of Satan will cease forever. He will no longer tempt, no longer accuse, for Christ defeated him for you; He did battle with your enemy and He triumphed, in the wilderness of Judea and in the wilderness of the cross. Until that Day, Satan remains your enemy, but he is a defeated enemy, triumphed over by the One who stood in your place and did not fall into temptation, your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.